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It was hard to keep up with Ubisoft’s Chris Early in San Francisco last night. Speaking as Ubisoft’s Vice President of Digital Publishing, Early outlined a wide range of initiatives to bring together all the different franchises and platforms we enjoy. He likened all the Ubisoft brands to members of one family, but the metaphor that resonated most with me was his comparison of videogames to spectator sports. Being passionate about sports, Early suggests, is so much more than just going to live games or matches. It also generally encourages fan behavior outside of the sporting event itself – from branded hats and jerseys to call-in radio shows and pick-up games in the park. Ubisoft wants to build that sense of relevance and connection through a concept Early calls “Companion Gaming.”

The company took its first steps in this direction last year with the launch of U Play, which provides a single structure for rewards that can be earned and shared across the games in Ubisoft’s catalog and across the various platforms on which those games are published.This year, U Play will also benefit from helpful walkthroughs and videos that the player can access from within the games themselves. No longer, Early jokes, will you have to balance a laptop on your knee as you search for secrets in the latest Ubisoft games. While I doubt the folks at GameFAQs are particularly worried about the impact of U Play, ready access to hints and tips should help the more mainstream gamers it seems most publishers are courting lately.

But there are changes more significant than the planned additions to U Play. Early revealed a new model for taking your success in one game and translating that into specific rewards in games from that same franchise on other devices. The three test cases for this new interoperability are the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, CSI: Fatal Conspiracy and Petz, all of which will benefit from stand-alone Facebook games where rewards and challenges are shared with the core console versions.

Launching today, Assassin’s Creed: Project Legacy is a Clan Wars-inspired social RPG playable on Facebook. Players will have a unique assassin profile, complete with skills and abilities. Will you be an assassin who specializes in open conflict or political intrigue? Will you stick to the shadows or trust in your knowledge to protect you? Each assassin unlocks a linear set of Mafia Wars-style missions that have unique, sometimes random rewards and require specific prerequisites. You might go on an extortion mission that requires you buy a fancy gift, but that mission might garner you a courtesan you can use for a later mission. Later, more dramatic missions might require you to have a number of soldiers or warhorses in your retinue. As you gather items and landmarks on Facebook, you’ll unlock those items in the console versions of the games. And as you complete missions in the console version, you’ll open up new missions on Facebook. It’s all part of what Early calls “the virtuous cycle.”

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The same approach is seen in the CSI and Petz games. CSI Crime City, written by the show’s writers, will be the Facebook companion to this Fall’s CSI: Fatal Conspiracy, each of which will share unlocks and rewards with the other. Petz is following a more ambituous multi-platform, multi-title plan. The core of it is Petz World, a free-to-play MMO aimed at teens and tweens. Kids will be able to adopt and train pets from around the world and then use them to go solve adventures. The companion elements are introduced through Petz Nursery 2 on the DS, which gives players access to new animals to train in Petz World. The MMO is also linked to a new Rollercoaster Tycoon-style Hamsterz game on Facebook, which will have its own companions, aimed for children, on the iPhone and iPad platforms. With the shared rewards across the various platforms, Early jokes, parents and kids have a reason to nag each other to play games. At least, I think it was a joke.

My first question about any of these games is how they are balanced. The challenge for the designers (who are, at least in the case of Assassin’s Creed, part of the same team that designs the console version of the game), is how they can make the Companion Gaming rewards significant enough to matter but not so powerful that players who aren’t engaged in both platforms simultaneously don’t feel cheated or penalized. Ubisoft, naturally, was quick to dismiss such fears. First, the rewards are only tied to the single player portion of Assassin’s Creed, so there’s no potential imbalance in multiplayer. Second, most of the rewards are structured around new content – things like additional missions or vanity items that don’t directly affect the gameplay itself. Still, the chance to level up guild members in Assassin’s Creed or earn and share unique rewards in the different versions of Petz must mean the balance for each game must work with and without those companion rewards.

“Why bother?” Early asked the crowd gathered for the presentation. “This is not cheap, easy, or free,” he said, so the question of motive was something he and the team at Ubisoft considered carefully. The real answer, according to Early, at least, is that “everything matters.”

Ubisoft made more announcements throughout the evening. Facebook will soon be home to a few new games including Party Central and Settlers. The company is also planning to expand the Heroes of Might & Magic franchise with several new games – Heroes of Might & Magic VI is the core property but there is also a free browser-based MMO called Heroes Kingdoms, which was released last month and will be coming to the iPhone and iPad soon, as well as an XBLA and PSN version of the insanely enjoyable DS game, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. Strangely, Ubisoft has not included any “Companion Gaming” elements in this franchise.

There are also other titles coming to XBLA and PSN, including an HD remake of Beyond Good & Evil, a time-bending Gradius-style shooter called Zeit2, the inventive 2D platformer Outland and a new god-game called From Dust. This last game was easily the most surprising of the show, so look for more coverage on The Escapist later this week.

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